Yes, you can go home again. Here, one man’s return to The Rock.
Though I grew up in Newfoundland, I’m careful to point out that I wasn’t born there. I would never refer to myself as a Newfoundlander. That would be presumptuous and sufficient grounds for a sock to the jaw in some circumstances – say, after hours at The Ship Pub when the doors are locked, the beer’s flowing and the fiddles are cranked.
Nevertheless, when I tell people I grew up in Newfoundland, they will, of course, assume I was born there. They all say the same thing after that: “Oh, I’d love to visit Newfoundland.” Yes, I reply with all sincerity, of course you would. It’s the best place on earth.
I can say that now with full confidence, after taking my family back “home” for a summer vacation last year. Yet, as a precocious nine-year-old transplanted to St. John’s from Montreal in 1975, I felt I’d been sent to a backwater. Dad was an engineer, and we moved there for his job, to work on a new research facility studying ocean resources. But this was possibly the height of Newfoundland’s “have-not” status, the lowest economic ebb for the province in the federation. To me, the place seemed bleak.
It had no NHL hockey team. No smoked meat sandwiches. No subway system. Instead, endless fiddle music, bad television and a radio broadcast dedicated to the minutiae of coastal weather patterns. “For Pouch Cove, fog. For St. John’s, rain changing to drizzle overnight. For the rest of the Avalon Peninsula, rain, drizzle and fog. And more fog, possibly heavy, with some extra fog on the side, turning to thick, unbelievably soupy fog by morning.”
I remember enduring – no joke – a full 40 days and 40 nights of rain. Biblical, yes. Fun? No. But it does explain how Newfoundlanders have developed such a great sense of humour and fondness for “a wee swally.” You need it to survive.
The first stop on our tour, straight off the plane, was The Duke of Duckworth, generally regarded as the best fish and chips in St. John’s. However, this is a contentious claim – and you could ask six people and get six different answers, detailing the variations in batter, gravy, fries and dressing (literally, Thanksgiving turkey-style dressing) at other locally famous spots like Ches’s, Leo’s and Scamper’s.
The Duke can be romanticized in many ways, not least as the place where I spent many a long evening with my buddies over too many pints of Smithwick’s. It was – and still is – a British-style pub where you always run into someone you know. Scenes from the hit TV show Republic of Doyle were shot there, but they’ve since built a replica of the room on a soundstage because regulars got antsy when their pub was closed. The place looks as it did 30 years ago, as does The Ship Pub (formerly The Ship Inn), the city’s most mythologized pub, just down the street. It was the hangout of the original CODCO comedy troupe and remains the best place to see authentic traditional and folk music.
St. John’s, the capital, is just how I remember, though it has cleaned up a bit. Newfoundland is now quite a formidable “have” province, since 2010 tabling healthy multimillion-dollar budget surpluses. The money that oil and mining has brought in over the last decade or so has paved pristine roads enjoyed by pristine luxury rides.
For our stay in St. John’s, we rented a house nestled in the rocky cliffs along The Narrows, as the entranceway to the harbour is called for obvious reasons. My high school buddy used to live along there, in a warren of houses lining a thin strip of Battery Road. It was an unfashionable neighbourhood then, but now it’s the place to be, perched at the edge of the formidable North Atlantic yet a 10-minute walk to the centre of town.
From the Battery, it’s a 90-minute trek (or so) on the famous North Head Trail leading up Signal Hill to Cabot Tower, a monument to explorer John Cabot with a panoramic view of ocean and city. The first wireless trans-Atlantic message was received here by Marconi in 1901. I used to walk our Newfoundland dog here, and she’d cut the quintessential profile of an ocean rescue dog, smiling and panting into the onshore winds as they buffeted the cliffs. The dog took care of herself, but we almost lost one child to the heavy gusts of wind on this particular hike.
Our sailing tours were epic adventures, apart from the near-death experiences. We hit more than one rock on more than one occasion, lost the engine in thick fog and ran out of food as an ocean storm forced us ashore. With the larder empty, my dad asked some fishermen docked alongside us if he could buy some crab. No, they said. But they gave us all we could eat for free. They were licensed for fish and couldn’t accept cash for crab.
Most summers, we’d sail to Trinity, an old fishing and whaling settlement about a three-hour drive from St. John’s. We have an etching of the village by the French artist Jean Claude Roy hanging in our living room, and I was excited to show the kids the real thing. The tiny town has achieved some fame as the set for Hollywood movie The Shipping News with Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore. I spent a few weeks there as a 16-year-old, deck-handing and living on our sailboat, running tourists out to see the whales. This was back before the term “eco-tourism.”
Trinity, which was added to the Canadian Register of Historic Places in 2008, has a progressive mayor who sees the potential in historical tourism. There’s summer theatre, a few snack shops and tea rooms and some wonderfully curated museums. The Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland designated several buildings in Trinity as historic sites between 1978 and 1983, which attracted money needed to preserve and restore the attractions, and yet it’s still a sleepy little village even when all the rooms in town are booked up. Tineke Gow runs the Artisan Inn here, and she manages a half-dozen quaint cottages and properties, each brimming with character and featuring spectacular views.
I’m biased, of course. Our time in Trinity created a whole raft of new memories, watching my kids do the same things I used to do. Like combing the beach outside our cottage for crab heads, dried-up starfish, mussel shells and other sea detritus that now occupy a shoe box in my daughter’s bedroom. We spent a day on the water with the folks from Sea of Whales Adventures, getting up close with humpbacks and dolphins in a spiffed-up pontoon boat that put us on the surface of the water next to 10-metre beasts. The kids beamed, and the whales waved their massive dorsals, and we went home tired, wet and happy.
If anything’s changed in Newfound-land over the past decade or two, it’s the sophistication of its restaurants and hotels, its eateries and inns. I chalk it up to the young guns who’ve travelled the world to learn and then returned to amp things up. (Back in my day, no one ever returned.) Nowhere is this more apparent than in Upper Amherst Cove, a town with pretty much nothing to offer visitors except one of the province’s best restaurants, Bonavista Social Club, open spring through fall. Katie Hayes is the force here, and she wields a mean brick oven imported from France. Her woodworking dad built the place, and her husband, Shane, works the floor. It’s here that I had the best fresh-from-the-garden salad of my life, a top-notch pizza and a terrific moose burger, the animal hunted the previous fall by her brother.
We toured the tiny village of Elliston, the “root cellar capital of the world,” which I’d never visited before. We went for the puffins. There’s a massive rock where a colony resides, and you can walk to the edge and observe the birds over a 25-metre crevice. Incredibly, the birds started to land around us. Some of them walked up within an arm’s reach of our kids, which set tourists’ cameras clicking and elicited some odd comments. “Your kids are too close to the birds,” we were told. “The birds keep chasing them,” I answered. It was magical to see so many puffins up close. They aren’t so elegant in flight, kind of like an eggplant with wings. But up close, they are regal and cute as hell.